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The Virgin Birth and Jesus’ Brothers

I am now ready to end this thread of posts dealing with the stories of Jesus’ virgin birth – told differently in Matthew and Luke, not at all in John, and seemingly argued against in the Gospel of Mark.

Earlier I should have given some terminology so that we could all be on the sam page.   There are different terms that are often confused:

  • Immaculate Conception. This doctrine is *not* about Jesus’ mother conceiving as a virgin; it is about Mary’s *own* mother and how she conceived Mary.   Mary, in Roman Catholic thinking, did not have a sin nature.  Otherwise she would have passed it along to Jesus.  But how could Mary not have one, if she were born and raised like every other human?  The answer came in the medieval notion of the immaculate conception: Mary herself was conceived (by her mother Anna) miraculously: God did a miracle so that even though Mary was conceived through the sex act, she was not given a sin nature.
  • Virginal conception. This is actually the view of Matthew and Luke, that Jesus’ mother *conceived* without having sex.   It is actually not the same thing as the term “virgin birth” (which I have been using loosely to mean virginal conception)
  • Virgin birth. Technically speaking, this refers to Mary giving *birth* while still a virgin.  In other words, she not only conceived without sex, but her hymen remained intact even after giving birth.  This was the later view of church fathers.
  • Perpectual virginity of Mary. This was the view that Mary *never* had sex, to the end of her life.  This became the standard view in Roman Catholic circles.  Mary was without a sin nature (hence the immaculate conception), and never was involved in sin in any way, including passing on a sin nature to others by giving them birth (the sin nature is given a child at conception during the sex act).

But if Mary was a perpetual virgin, then why is Jesus said to have brothers and sisters in the New Testament (see Mark 6:3; John 7:3)?   This was the ONE issue that my students at Rutgers – who were largely Roman Catholic – had problems with when I taught NT there.  Unlike my evangelical protestant students at UNC, who have no problem with Jesus’ mother having other children, but who can’t *stand* (many of them) the idea that the Bible could have mistakes in it, my Rutgers students would often go ballistic if I claimed that Jesus had siblings.

Here is what I say about the Catholic view of Jesus’ “brothers” in my book Did Jesus Exist?


As a side note I should point out that the Roman Catholic Church has for many centuries insisted that Jesus did not actually have brothers.  That does not mean that the church denied that James and the other brothers of Jesus existed, or that they were unusually closely related to Jesus.  But in the Roman Catholic view Jesus’ brothers were not related to Jesus by blood, because they were not the children of his mother Mary.  The reasons the Catholic Church put forth for claiming this, however, were not historical or based on a close examination of the New Testament texts.  Instead, the reasoning involved a peculiar doctrine that had developed in the Catholic church, dating all the way back to the fourth Christian century.  In traditional catholic dogma, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was not simply a virgin when Jesus was born, but she remained a virgin until the end of her days.  This is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.

In no small measure this doctrine is rooted in the view that sexual relations necessarily involve sinful activities.  Mary, however, according to Catholic doctrine, did not have a sin nature.  She could not have had, otherwise she would have passed it along to Jesus when he was born.  She was herself conceived without the stain of original sin: the doctrine of the “immaculate conception.”   And since she did not have a sin nature, she was not involved in any sinful activities, including sex.  That is why, at the end of her life, rather than dying, Mary was taken up into heaven.  This is the doctrine of the assumption of the virgin.

Protestants have long claimed that none of these doctrines about Mary is actually rooted in Scripture, and from a historians’ point of view, I have to say that I think they are right.  These are theological views driven by theological concerns that have nothing to do with the earliest traditions about Jesus and his family.  But if, for Roman Catholics, Mary was a perpetual virgin, and never had sex, who exactly were the so-called “brothers” of Jesus?

There were two views of the matter that Catholic thinkers developed, one of which became standard.  In the older of the two views, the “brothers” of Jesus were the sons of Joseph from a previous marriage.  This made them, in effect, Jesus’ step-brothers.   This view can be found in later apocryphal stories about Jesus’ birth, where we are told that Joseph was a very old man when he became betrothed to Mary.  Presumably that is one of the reasons they never had sex; Joseph was too old.  This perspective continued to exert its influence on Catholic thinkers for centuries.  You may have noticed that in all those medieval paintings of Jesus’ nativity, Joseph is portrayed as quite elderly, as opposed to Mary, in the blossom of youth.  This is why.   I should stress that even if this view were historically right – there is not single piece of reliable evidence for it – James still would have been unusually closely related to Jesus.

Eventually this view came to be displaced however, and in no small measure because of the powerful influence of the fourth-century church father Jerome.  Jerome was an ascetic himself, among other things, denying himself the pleasures of sex.  He thought that the superior form of Christian life for everyone involved asceticism.  But surely he was no more ascetic than the close relatives of Jesus.  For Jerome, this means that not only Jesus’ mother but also his father (who was not really his father, except by adoption) were ascetics as well.   Even Joseph never had sex.  But that obviously means he could not have children from a previous marriage, and so the brothers of Jesus were not related to Joseph.  They were Jesus’ cousins.

The main problem with this view is that when the New Testament talks about Jesus’ brothers, it uses the Greek word that literally refers to a male sibling.  There is a different Greek word for cousin.  This other word is not used of James and the others.   A plain and straightforward reading of the texts in the Gospels and in Paul leads to an unambiguous result: these “brothers” of Jesus were his actual siblings.  Since neither Mark (which first mentions Jesus having four brothers and several sisters; 6:3) nor Paul gives any indication at all of knowing anything about Jesus being born of a virgin, the most natural assumption is that they both thought that Jesus’ parents were his real parents.  They had sexual relations, and Jesus was born.  And then (later?) came other children to the happy couple.  And so Jesus’ brothers were his actual brothers.


Did Jesus Exist? Interview by Guy Raz
Why Was the Gospel of Mark Attributed to Mark?



  1. Avatar
    Scott  January 3, 2015

    I am continually amused at how much of theology starts with a “God is <> and therefore He must be ….” Calvinism seems to spring from “God is <> and therefore He must … condemn the non-select to Hell.” I remember thinking this while reading your account in How Jesus Became God of how perfectly acceptable views of Jesus’ divinity became heresy when later theologians “concluded” that God was something else.

    This topic is rife with this kind of thinking:
    “Mary must have been without Original Sin to avoid passing it on to Jesus, therefore her conception must have been miraculous.” (Never mind the fact that if Mary could be conceived without sin via a miracle, then Jesus could have been conceived likewise)
    “Mary must have been completely sinless in order to be the mother of God, therefore Jesus brothers were really his step-brothers.”

    I know you say that theology is a species of logic with its own rules, but this kind of reasoning where the facts must yield to the conclusions seems like it can arrive at whatever Truth one desires.

    • Avatar
      tripp  January 5, 2015

      Scott I just finished that book and was thinking the exact same thing. Paul would have been a heretic if he had been writing 100 years later. It’s mental.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 3, 2015

    I’ve often wondered about that “(later?).” Am I right in thinking many Christians who don’t believe Jesus’s mother was a virgin still consider him her “firstborn son”? Is there any indication of that in the Gospels? Conversely, are there any arguments against it (e.g., a firstborn son in that time and place usually being named for his father)?

    That makes me think of a question I forgot to ask, about the reference in Mark to Jesus’s mother and brothers. Did the phrasing necessarily mean “brothers” rather than “siblings”? If one female (Jesus’s mother) could plausibly have been there, what about his sisters?

    Something I know I’ve said before: Now that Catholics have gotten away from picturing Joseph as an old man, I’m irked when I hear them declare, *as fact*, that both Mary and Joseph were in their teens. It’s one thing to say couples in that time and place usually were married that young, quite another to make statements *as fact* about specific individuals.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2015

      Firstborn: yes, that was normally taken to mean there were others who were second born, etc. Brothers: see today’s post!

      • Avatar
        mgoldsberry  January 3, 2015

        I think I read in one of your books about an epitaph of a woman who died giving birth to her “firstborn” – which settled the matter for me.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 5, 2015

          Not in my book, but it’s an interesting point.

          • Avatar
            mgoldsberry  January 5, 2015

            I remember now – the inscription is quoted by Raymond Brown, also In Fitzmyer’s commentary, to make the point that the term “firstborn” does not have to mean that Mary had more children. They give the date as 5 BCE – Egypt.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 5, 2015


      • Avatar
        Wilusa  January 3, 2015

        But why is he assumed to have been the eldest?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 5, 2015

          Because if he was known to have older siblings his mother would never have been assumed to have been a virgin.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  January 5, 2015

            Okay, I guess my original question wasn’t clear enough! It wasn’t important, but I’ll try again anyway.

            I’ve gotten the impression – perhaps wrongly – that even people who don’t believe Jesus’s mother was a virgin tend to take for granted that he was her firstborn. (If Matthew and/or Luke called him that, it doesn’t prove anything, because they were claiming she was a virgin.)

            I was wondering whether there’s any real evidence, one way or the other. For example, *if* firstborn sons in that time and place were usually named for their fathers, it would suggest he *wasn’t* the eldest son.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 5, 2015

            Yes, that’s what I thought you meant. What I was trying to say is that if James and others were his older brothers — these people were widely known (esp. James, but also Jude possibly) in the early church. Anywhere that their relationship with Jesus was known, you could not have had a virgin birth story. But, yes, possibly the story arose in circles unfamiliar with Jesus’ family.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  January 5, 2015

            A further clarification: The authors of the Gospels, writing many years later, could easily not have known siblings of Jesus were two or three years older than he. Even the earlier oral traditions might have been started by followers of Jesus who didn’t know much about his family.

  3. Avatar
    Arthurlane  January 3, 2015

    Thanks for this post. This topic has come up for conversation more than once with friends and family, but I wasn’t aware of your point in the last sentence re: that the Greek term used was literally the term for brother when referring to James, etc.

    That’s pretty compelling in my view. The author(s) could well have used almost any other word.

  4. Avatar
    Hank_Z  January 3, 2015

    Bart, does the Greek language have a word for “step-brothers”? If so, was it more commonly used than the word for “brothers” when referring to step-brothers when the Gospels were written?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2015

      I don’t know that it has a word for step-brother. But if Jesus’ was born of a virgin and his mother later had sons, it’s not clear that they would *be* step brothers. Maybe half brothers?

  5. Avatar
    Hon Wai  January 3, 2015

    Maybe you can post on why sex became so deeply linked to sin in the patristic period. Other than influence of Augustine, what were the socio-historical factors that led Christian leaders in this period to view sex negatively, and ascetism highly. How in fact monasticism originate in the patristic period, given it was a radical departure from Jewish practice and practices described in the NT?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2015

      Yes, it’s deeply rooted in asceticism, a major influence on early Christianity, starting from the days of its apocalpytic orientation. That would be a very long series of posts! But I’ll think about it.

  6. Avatar
    Ini  January 3, 2015

    The Roman Catholics seem to also refer to Mary as the mother of God did this also stem from fourth-century church father Jerome? Please advise. Thanks a lot.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2015

      Off hand I don’t remember what Jerome’s own position on “mother of God” was. This became a big topic though in theological discourses of the early fifth century, especially with the objections to the term by the important theologian (then branded a heretic) Nestorius.

  7. Avatar
    James  January 3, 2015

    It’s intriguing that asceticism was so deep seated in the Christian tradition. Jerome was onto something, since apparently both Jesus and Paul were unmarried and presumably celibate. One would think that asceticism is not a selling point for a new religion, that opposition to sex and other pleasures of life would be a handicap in competition with alternative religions. Was this ascetic tradition a disadvantage in the rise of Christianity to dominance? Or did Christian apologists manage to turn it to their advantage or get round it somehow?

  8. Avatar
    jrhislb  January 3, 2015

    Given that James was a reasonably well known figure in the early church, I take it that the stories in Matthew and Luke would have difficulty gaining acceptance if Jesus was not the eldest child at least.

  9. Goat
    Goat  January 3, 2015

    How strong are the historical cases for the propositions that:
    A) Peter and James were the leaders of the Christian movement following Jesus’ death?
    B) The James in this duo was the brother of Jesus?
    C) That the doctrines of the early Christian movement were more like those espoused in the Gospel attributed to Matthew than those espoused in Paul’s letters?
    D) That the James of “Peter and James” was the author of the letter attributed to James in the New Testiment?

    Dan M.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2015

      A) strong. B) Very strong C) Possibly, but I wouldn’t see these as the only two options; D) Very unlikely.

  10. Avatar
    Jim  January 3, 2015

    One of the current strands of Jesus mythicism is focusing on the notion that Jesus was a celestial/mythical “Christ” figure that by the time of the gospel writings was becoming humanized. The Roman Catholic theology that you summarized above from your DJE book seems to infer the opposite trajectory as time passes, namely a historical person becoming mythologized.

    Part of the mythicist’s argument revolves around Paul’s Galatians 1.19 statement. In the NT Greek, is the case for Paul referring to James as Jesus’ “biological brother” (rather than the more general “Christian brother”) slam dunk, or do mythicists have a bit of a case? Mythicists also seem to go after Paul using the more vague description “Lord’s brother” instead of directly stating “Jesus’ brother”. (I suppose that both mythicists and early orthodox RC theology are somewhat on the same page (although for very different reasons) regarding Jesus as having biological siblings.)

  11. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 4, 2015

    I read that it was generally thought that only the father passed on traits, the mother was just a nursery. So without a human father Jesus had no sin. Only once science developed and people realised a child inherits from both parents did the Catholics have to come up with immaculate conception. I don’t know if that’s true but it sounds plausible to me.

  12. James Harmon
    James Harmon  January 4, 2015

    Mr. Ehrman, concerning the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, is one more probable than the other in your view? I guess what I am asking is it more probable that Jesus was born during Herod or during the census about 10 years later after Herod’s death? Thoughts on the 2 time frames given as possibilities?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2015

      Both accounts date Jesus’ birth to the days of Herod. Luke mistakenly thinks that Quirinius was the governor of Syria at the time.

      • Avatar
        BrianUlrich  January 5, 2015

        Is there any evidence that Luke combined two originally separate birth narratives for Jesus and John the Baptist. The Jesus story has him born under Quirinius, the John story under Herod, and the biggest cross between the two is that the pregnancies happened at the same time, with embryo-John getting stoked about a pseudo-meeting with embryo-Jesus in Luke 1.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 5, 2015

          It is often thought that there is some kind of confusion of sources. When Zachariah breaks out into a song to praise God for his son’s birth, parts of it sound like he’s praising God for the birth of the messiah, not the forerunner. As to your solution — I’m not sure. Worth thinking about.

      • TWood
        TWood  May 24, 2016

        Obviously it’s possible/probable Luke mistook Quirinius as governor of Syria under Herod, and the Tivoli Inscription has problems that seem fatal… but it seems there’s some evidence Luke was using “time compression” here as he does elsewhere… Have you ever heard this as a possible solution to the very real “Quirinius problem?”

        • Bart
          Bart  May 24, 2016

          Yup, I’ve heard lots of explanations! When someone uses this one I usually ask what th epoint of the compression was, and how the story can otherwise be true if the census did *not* occur during the reign of Herod.

    • Avatar
      callmps  January 5, 2015

      It would seem to this layperson that it’s more likely Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day like a good Jew, rather than fleeing to Egypt during a non-historical genocide.

  13. Avatar
    Paul  January 5, 2015


    You wrote: “The main problem with this view is that when the New Testament talks about Jesus’ brothers, it uses the Greek word that literally refers to a male sibling. There is a different Greek word for cousin.”

    Can you specify what the different Greek words for cousing and male sibling are?


  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 6, 2015

    Concepts like the “Immaculate Conception” of Mary and the “Perpetual Virginity” of Mary add to the evidence that humans just made this stuff up and make it hard to trust anything about Christian theology.

    Catholics rely not only on the Bible, but also on “tradition” and the “Magisterium (the pope)”. Two of the three are needed to establish the “truth.” Good luck.

  15. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 6, 2015

    Just want to mention that I see the word “celibate” being used here in a way that’s different from what I (growing up Catholic) was taught it meant. We were taught that “celibacy,” per se, had nothing to do with sex: it was the state of *not being married*. The proper term for not having sex was “chastity.”

    I think nuns and monks took vows of chastity. For some reason that was never made clear, priests took vows of celibacy. But that didn’t mean they were free to have sex: out-of-wedock sex was a mortal sin, for anyone!

    And the Church never had to say much about homosexuality in those days. No one, anywhere, was thinking of legalizing same-sex marriage; and *any* sex outside marriage was deemed sinful.

  16. Avatar
    Jana  January 12, 2015

    “They had sexual relations, and Jesus was born. And then (later?) came other children to the happy couple. And so Jesus’ brothers were his actual brothers.” What a simple plausible straight forward understanding void of false piety.

  17. Avatar
    Marko071291  June 5, 2018

    Bart, what is the greek word for cousin? Is it used anywhere in the NT? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2018

      ἀνέψιος (ANEPSIOS). Nope, never occurs in the NT, but it’s a common enough word.

  18. Avatar
    Marko071291  April 25, 2019

    Hi Bart,
    What about the fact that Mk 15,40 and Mt 29,56 identify James and Joseph as sons of Mary – sister of Jesus’ mother. According to this theory, this shows that it is possible that James and Joseph are the same James and Joseph from mk 6,3 and that they were Jesus’ cousins, not brothers. I heard this from a catholic priest.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2019

      It’s almost certainly a different James and a different “Joseph” (since he is not called Joseph in Mark 6:3!). Both were very common names. The James of 15:40 is specifically called “James the Younger” or “James the Small” (depends how you translate the word MIKROS). He is called that in order is to differentiate him from the other James’s known in the context of Jesus, and is *never* used as a description for James the brother of Jesus. So they are different people. And Matt 29:56 calls the person “Joseph” not “Joses” as in Mark 6:3.

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